Remembering D D Kosambi: In conversation with Prof. Ramakrishna Ramaswamy

Visiting Professor, Department of Chemistry, IIT-Delhi
Author of D.D. Kosambi: Selected Works in Mathematics and Statistics

More about him at

In the Homi Jehangir Bhabha (HJB) vs D D Kosambi (DDK) tussle, a supremely talented, definitively democratic and readily disagreeable personality was terminally
sidelined, and our elitist nuclear ambition caused a solar eclipse
that has cost us dear. Do you agree?

At the time when DDK and HJB were disagreeing about energy sources
(around 1958-1960), harvesting solar energy was not simple. Silicon
technology was many years into the future. All known routes involved
rare elements like Ruthenium. As an idea, solar was great, but it was
not practical. What we see today is that DDK's instinct was right, but
it was much more important for HJB to set up the Department of Atomic
Energy, etc. DDK's disagreeableness was only part of the story.

How did the idea of presenting and elucidating DDK's mathematical
treasure trove to people at large germinate in your mind? Did
mathematics lead you to DDK or was it the other way round? 

As I mentioned in the book, the original push came from Prof. Romila
Thapar who only knew of DDK's contributions to History. I had heard of
him first as a student in IIT Kanpur around 1973, and at TIFR where I
spent a few years, mainly in the context of mathematics. One thing led
to another, and I decided to at least collect his maths and look at
how he moved from one area to the other.

Twenty four papers each with a commentary and key technical review
extracts - the structure is God sent for someone who wishes to put
Kosambi in perspective in optimal time. 

The total number of maths papers of DDK is about 70 (give or take). I
also realized that most people would not be interested in all the
maths papers, just the ones that had a historical or mathematical
significance. Once I decided that, the choices were mainly clear. The
first paper. The Bourbaki paper. The paper that started the
numismatics. The Kosambi distance. The paper with Cartan. The
orthogonal decomposition. The Riemann paper, etc.

I must inevitably turn to DDK's controversial approach to the
Riemann hypothesis. Notwithstanding the embarrassment rooted in what
most term as a monumental blunder, I learn that he had made it amply
clear that his work based on Tauberian theorems was only a conditional
proof ("if the primes in suitably defined covering intervals behave
like an unbiased random sample, then the Riemann hypothesis follows")

"Amply" is overstating the case. No self-respecting mathematician
would have published these papers. If you discover that if A is true,
then B would be true, but you cannot prove A is true, then you really
are left nowhere. It would have been more mature to say something like
"Ah, I have discovered that B would follow if the following statement
A is true, but I have no way of proving A, unfortunately ..." If you
read my essay "A Scholar in his time" you will see that a posthumous
review of this work says that effectively Kosambi replaced the Riemann
Hypothesis by an even more involved hypothesis that the reviewer
proposed to call the Kosambi Hypothesis. DDK himself (in his essay
Adventure into the Unknown) tries to make it out that he was "a
maverick who could not fit into the scheme of things" but the argument
does not fly.

Continuing the same thread, while Kosambi’s 'Agricultural sciences'
prank does seem bizarre, could it be that his detractors pounced on
the opportunity to defame DDK, also burying the prospective worth of
his paper, and the possibilities inherent in it.

I don't call it a prank. No serious mathematician does that,
especially not one who has position at TIFR.

I would also love to know your thoughts on his practice-driven work
– for instance the Proper Orthogonal Decomposition analysis and the
study of seasonal death rates that advocated proactive anti-typhoid
work to avert an epidemic. I am sure he would have done something
about  the corona scare as well, had he been in our midst.

I'm sure that he would be out there collecting data, and the fact that
Pune is a major centre would probably enthuse him no end! He was an
intensely practical man, but his interests were many and time was at a
premium. So he flitted into many areas and did not complete his work
or follow it up in many cases.   It is clear, for instance, that he
constructed the Kosmagraph at St Xavier College, but nobody else has
written about it so we have no other validation. Both his books have
been lost, one of them in 1946 and one in 1966. No copies were kept?
Why? All this makes for a very confusing image of a very intelligent
person who could not keep a sustained interest in most things.

How would you summarize DDK's work concerning "Law of large
numbers"? I am keen to know about your thoughts given the applications
of this intuitive law in AI.

The LLN paper is an expository paper in Mathematics Student in which
he basically explains this law (as a way of understanding it himself,
no doubt). There is little that is original in the paper, except
perhaps the presentation.

I believe you have consulted C D Deshmukh’s book for biographical
information (indeed a delightfully detached account of Kosambi’s life
and work) Hope the translation has done justice to the original.

I don't read Marathi, so I wouldn't know how the translation works! I
got a fair amount of information from Meera Kosambi also.

"Oh, I was not aware!"

Those who love to plead ignorance...
with staple expressions of shock and surprise
and the standard submission "Oh, I was not aware!"

are visibly happy in the cocoon of their pretence
relishing the litany of fake acts, one after another ...
of dramatic disbelief and theatrical sighs
at developments they follow by the minute

Little do the poor souls know
their perturbed faces tell the real story
with resounding force
and compounding effect

That mounting age helps us look beyond
is only a fabled myth
It only ferments our desperation
and immortalizes old habits
which never die, hard or otherwise.

A Class Act

If one is ready to brave, more than bear, the excruciating pain of constant familial and social ridicule, especially the one layered with virulent disdain and septic contempt, the exhilarating gain of transforming offbeat paths into beaten tracks knows no bounds. 

Thanks to the arid, bureaucratic mechanisms of conventional NGO bodies, proletariat activists and CSR practitioners across the globe, social responsibility, knowingly and unknowingly, has come to harbor several blatant assumptions about the larger cause of end-beneficiaries (often generically slotted as ‘target groups’ or ‘deprived’ communities) Overlooking the fact that deprivation is only circumstantial and in no way indicative of the instinctive and intellectual capacities inherent within the community, the supply-side forces rush to emancipate the downtrodden, and sadly, they are themselves rendered deprived. Busy peddling jargon-heavy black and white prescriptions, they are unable to spot playful smiles behind suppressed yawns that the ‘deprived’ reserve for the  ‘privileged’, led by doubt more than disbelief. 

My workshop intervention programs have been a mixed bag of trials and triumphs, including both dazzling success stories and dismal failures. Since I have never felt the need to showcase my "track record", the outcomes of these interventions hardly guide the future course of action. Shrugging off every disappointment and steering clear of dangerous assumptions following every accomplishment, I march on barefoot, unearthing profound truths following every interaction with the target audiences, who more often than not are kids.    

2019 was an year of scintillating discoveries. Thanks to the prompt help of activist Rahul Shende (who runs an NGO called Urmee in Pune), I was introduced to a few ZP schools in and around the vicinity of Pune.

After a few horrifying 'experiences' with blatantly conniving teachers, highly suspect managements and stone-faced government authorities, I finally gatecrashed into a ZP primary school nestled in the lap of rustic environs, exuding an elusive charm that one can sense from afar. The motive was to directly interact with the teachers and students and try to gauge any need for enablement in some form or the other. The head mistress was low on comprehension but very high on compassion. Rahul took the responsibility of paper work (the usual application letter with photocopies that eventually rest (read rust) in peace in some godforsaken store room) and the headmistress helped expedite the "approval" from the higher-ups.

Luckily, all 'mandatory' things fell in place and I landed at the school one fine day, ready to mingle with the cheerful students of class I, II, III and IV, all seated in one spacious classroom.

In a month's time, many of them - Kartik, Karan, Megha, Arjun, Kartiki, Aarti, Sanskar and Saima   among others - showed exceptional grit and gumption to absorb the umpteen freewheeling lessons on Math, Science, English, Sanskrit and General Knowledge that came their way without warning. Mind you, these are the kids of nomadic brick klin workers, seeped in abject poverty and alarming deprivation. Yet, the self-springing resolve that a few students showed should be enough to inspire the whole nation towards positive thought and action.

Meet Kartik (right) the wonder boy from standard IV, a pro at picking up the right accent and intonation. He feels at home with both words and numbers and can now comprehend the logic underlying Pascal's Law. He can recite a poetic proverb in chaste Sanskrit (leaving no trace of  his native twang) and he understands the essence and credence of the famous Einstein's Riddle.
To his left is Sumeet, a confirmed brat, who was quick to sense the need to be with Kartik in the snap. The native urge to mingle with a superior mate is earthy intelligence that invariably fuels progression. Hats off to Sumeet as well! India needs both Kartik and Sumeet to pave the way forward in this era of artificial intelligence.

The Musical Maharshi from Amravati

One of Maharashtra's gravest tragedies is the perverted polarization that separates the unfairly privileged Western Maharashtra from the rest of the state. Consequently, many legends remain perennially unsung, whether during their lifetimes or even posthumously. One such luminary was singer-composer Pandit Manohar Kavishwar.

His Geet Govind was inspired by G. D. Madgulkar's Geet Ramayan, and although equally soulful and more profound, it was denied the place of pride that was given to Geet Ramayan on a platter. Not stopping at Geet Govind, Kavishwar composed Geet Gajanan, Geet Gautam, and Geet Chakradhar, and yet this humble school teacher from Amravati is not known to most Maharashtrians.   

Thanks to the divine voice of Sudhir Phadke, Kavishwar continues to mesmerize us every time Aakashwani airs his माना मानव वा परमेश्वर, मी स्वामी पतितांचा which articulates the essence and credence of Yogyogeshwar Bhagwan Srikrishna precisely and purposefully. His winsome involvement (which the world erroneously equates with indulgence) and wholesome detachment (which most misread as ruthlessness), his grand stature as the sole maverick among Gods, his absolute disdain for helpless cries and ostensible grieving, his heartfelt concern for the well being of his ardent devotees, and his earnest appeal to all Jeevas to defy all odds only to do what they ought to....this beautiful verse unfolds all in less than 100 words. And Phadke takes it to another level like only Phadke can. Note the dexterous harkat on the word Deveshwar (vintage Babuji) and the contrasting lows and highs in the stanza:

रुक्मिणी माझी सौंदर्याची प्रगटे जणू प्रतिमा
किंचित हट्टी परंतू लोभस असे सत्यभामा

तरीही वरितो सहस्त्र सोळा कन्या मी अमला
पराधीन ना समर्थ घेण्या वार कलंकाचा

Kavishwar's composition and Babuji's rendition are both celestial. Rarely do we find words and notes become one like they do here. Beyond doubt, Lord Krishna has blessed this Malhar composition with eternal life.

माना मानव वा परमेश्वर, मी स्वामी पतितांचा
भोगी म्हणुनी उपहासा, मी योगी कर्माचा
दैवजात दुःखाने मनुजा पराधीन केले
त्या पतितांचे केवळ रडणे मजला ना रुचले
भूषण रामा एकपत्नी व्रत, मला नको तसले
मोह न मजला कीर्तीचा, मी नाथ अनाथांचा
रुक्मिणी माझी सौंदर्याची प्रगटे जणू प्रतिमा
किंचित हट्टी परंतू लोभस असे सत्यभामा
तरीही वरितो सहस्त्र सोळा कन्या मी अमला
पराधीन ना समर्थ घेण्या वार कलंकाचा
कर्तव्याला मुकता माणूस, माणूस ना उरतो
हलाहलाते प्राशुन शंकर देवेश्वर ठरतो
जगता देण्या संजीवन मी कलंक हा धरितो
वत्सास्तव मम ऊर फुटावा वत्सल मातेचा

- पं. मनोहर कवीश्वर    

Baby, Viju and Vijaya Mehta

Notwithstanding its saccharine-smeared idiom and asymmetrical narration, 'Zhimma', the bulky memoir-cum-autobiography of 'Rangayan' founder Vijaya Mehta, is eminently readable, particularly the chapters on Othello in Marathi (Zunjarrao), Eugène Ionesco's Chairs (Khurchya) and Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle (Ajab Nyay Vartulacha), fun-filled pre-Rangayan and Rangayan days, adaptations of Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Jaywant Dalvi, 'Mudrarakshas' with a German cast, and of course Peter Brook's Mahabharata.

Beyond doubt, Mehta is as relevant to theatre today as she was back then. Rangayan's green house, almost singlehandedly steered by Mehta, was pioneering in every respect. Its laboratory approach to theatre, global strides and cultural amalgamation, offbeat experiments with different art forms, unconditional readiness to learn from the masters, purposeful innovation, and thoughtful adaptations of literary works are timeless case studies. Above all, Rangayan sought to help its actors learn to play and grow with (and detach from) their characters, rather than relish low-hanging fruits or settle for cheaper bargains. For those who have studied Peter Brook would be overjoyed to find a genuine admirer in Mehta, who practiced Brook in the living waters of her theatre voyage. 

Mehta is indeed a rare breed. She is quick to acknowledge her debt to her mentors, both real and virtual, and she steers clear of playing the woman card unlike many crusaders of her stature from other walks. As a one-of-a-kind catalyst and master orchestrator, she has traversed disparate worlds of diverse individuals across different eras, all mavericks in their own right, whether administrators, actors, dramatists, film makers, folk artistes, directors, poets, painters, publishers, writers, thinkers, set designers, dance directors or music directors. Given her stoic calm and unflinching sense of purpose amid the highs and lows in personal life, she is a towering inspiration across generations. Luck and serendipity may have played a key role in her life -  privileged Mumbai upbringing, financial prosperity, upmarket lifestyle, and a plugged-in network of happening people across the globe - yet she is incontrovertibly self-made. Her progression from an actress of earthy talent to a visionary theatre director is astounding, to say the least.     

In her book, the thespian vividly describes umpteen characters that she brought to life on stage and screen. All the same, you are instinctively drawn to a few real-life characters: Mehta's mother Baiji; Harin khote, Mehta's first husband; Parsi theatre veteran Adi Marzban; and German theatre director Fritz Benewitz among others. Mehta has more than adequately described the significance of both theatre pioneers in her life, and we come to know the immensely likeable Baiji from close quarters.

But we are left yearning to know more about Harin, particularly his academic and professional triumphs, religious bent of mind, and offbeat ways. We can understand Mehta chose to keep mum on the Harin we know from her mom-in-law Durga Khote's self-indulgent autobiography, but we certainly would have liked to know a little more about his German stint, his tryst with Tatas, and the final career switch, as also his hobbies, pastimes and aspirations. For someone whose short life was tragic in many ways, he deserved a longer tribute.

On the face of it, Mehta appears to probe deeper into the existential question 'Why Rangayan folded up?' but knowingly or unknowingly, she seems all too keen to provide definitive answers. That she calls Rangayan her 'gang' invites the risk of being called a ganglord, it also makes one wonder whether there was any thought spared for succession planning during Rangayan's prime time. Why didn't a troupe brimming with radical ideas feel the need to check the conviction of the collective at some point, and across different levels, core and peripheral. Who knows, a detached probe could have paved the way for a purposeful interaction between the conformists and the non-conformists, besides exposing the pretenders and the pseudos. Given a delightfully freewheeling group like Rangayan, it's but obvious that a few co-travelers would have pledged allegiance out of mindless devotion and mechanical resolve or even guided by ulterior motives. The imposters often damage the core fabric in unimaginable ways.

No wonder, we find many ex-Rangayan comrades defying the very principles Rangayan sought to teach them. Merely idolizing Mehta through the honorific 'Bai' has done little to help their cause as most of them are unabashedly loud and unreal in their stage and screen performances. In stark contrast, many mainstream stars like Ranveer Singh and excellent actors like Vijay Raaz and Vijay Verma do a terrific job without any claim to that effect. At the start of her career, Mehta fathomed the depth of the Stanislavsky quote "Love the art in you, not yourself in the art" from her mentor of formative years P. D. Shenoy. Most of her protégés have done the exact opposite. That is the real tragedy of Rangayan, not its terminal full stop.           

Dr. Shreeram Lagoo gets only a passing mention in the book; Mehta's admiration for the legendary thespian is rather chary, much like how Lata Mangeshkar lauds Bhimsen Joshi, in as few words as possible. The sweet-sour reminiscences of P L Deshpande are accompanied by subtle allegations that one feels should have come with commensurate substantiation. Her stint at the decidedly elitist NCPA is almost dutifully glorified, with a statutory submission that the responsibility was assumed only to give back to society. The chapters on her tryst with TV and cinema seem rather hurried, largely stating the obvious in describing the 'new' experiences.That Mehta never felt the need to distinguish between Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal is baffling, given her penchant for true-to-life representations. Watching her identically sedate portrayals in Nihalani's over-hyped 'Party' and Benegal's adequately bearable 'Kalyug', it's apparent that something substantial was lost in the transition. In 'Party', while Manohar Singh struggles to play the pseudo, English-speaking playwright (when he says 'you are depressed', he stresses only the word 'are' like it alone conveyed some profound meaning), Mehta appears hopelessly rehearsed in her Anglicized utterances: 'Don't be rude, Vrinda' or 'I am not feeling well, Barve' et al. If possible, she should look beyond her Best Actress Award (1985 Asia-Pacific Film Festival) to study the nuanced performances of four co-artistes: Amrish Puri, Om Puri, Pearl Padamsee and Naseer (who underlines the connect between his opening rendition and the fag-end horrific guest appearance, in a 'fit for purpose' manner that only Naseer can, way better than what the makers would have imagined)

Coming back to Zhimma, Mehta's third-person 'look back' at Baby and Viju, as she was known to her family then, does not make room for the expected detachment as the narration is largely befitting a family photo album. Nevertheless, the graphic account of her childhood years is evocative and engaging. The passages devoted to her dad's Bhiwandi home and its inhabitants are positively intriguing.Thanks to her succinct character sketches, many haunting frames come alive, depicting the lives and times of Raosahebkaka, Kamalakaki, Bappai, and Shanti.

Given her generous use of the phrase "Arthat he maaze mat" (This of course is my opinion), you wonder if that could have been an apt title for the book. What's undoubtedly a priceless manual for theatre practitioners has had to share space with Baby's 'Zhimma Fugdi', given the excessively florid prose of the initial chapters, as also Subhash Avchat's overawing cover design. That however doesn't take away much from the book's readability.